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Pacific Rim Shot

My dining companion is joking that the new Sapporo reminds her so much of P.F. Chang's that if someone were to put that eatery's trademark entry monument horses on wheels and roll them in front of the place, diners might never know the difference. It's true that the two enterprises...
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My dining companion is joking that the new Sapporo reminds her so much of P.F. Chang's that if someone were to put that eatery's trademark entry monument horses on wheels and roll them in front of the place, diners might never know the difference.

It's true that the two enterprises have a lot in common, the similarities all the more apparent given that Sapporo is just one street south of the P.F. Chang's in Keirland. Both are shiny restaurants serving contemporary takes on Asian food, and both double as ultra-hip drinking holes. Both cater to style-conscious crowds, and both take some serious maneuvering to get in for a meal. They're both aiming to be perfect places for perfect people.

And like Chang's, the $4.5 million Sapporo hums with a definite corporate feel, suggesting a board of directors at work planning every detail down to the creases in the servers' head-to-toe black uniforms. As the original Chang's was, the new Sapporo looks to be a prototype, poised for future chain expansion promoting formula fare.

After eating dinner, though, the difference is obvious: Sapporo is more than just an investor's idea of a beautiful balance sheet. Other trendy eateries may be content to rest on their lavish laurels, serving food that looks pretty but barely causes a ripple on the taste buds. The dishes at Sapporo, however, under the direction of no less than three executive chefs, grab attention with high-quality ingredients, expert execution, architectural presentation and spirited, well-balanced flavors. While the atmosphere cries corporate, this is a real food-lover's restaurant.

I've been wondering about the place since its skeleton began taking shape last summer. It didn't initially look appealing, designed as a massive cube, the 11,000- square-foot building decorated only with a few curving patio walls, flaming entry torches and roof treatments that look like butterfly wings in flight. Cold. It's also owned by American Restaurants of Scottsdale, which operates Jillys American Grill in Scottsdale Airpark and Maloney's bar in downtown Scottsdale. These places are known more for cocktails and chick-cruising than cuisine.

Plus, how many more sushi places does the stretch of Scottsdale road from Shea to Bell need, already graced with Sushi on Shea, RA Sushi and Sushi Brokers, not to mention a Kyoto Bowl and Shogun Express? Apparently there's room enough for at least one more, given that Sapporo's 300 seats are jammed, with the tables turning what appear to be several times a night. Through all the clutter, Sapporo stands out.

There are some things I can do without. Reservations are an absolute must, and the process is hardly friendly. Guests are asked for their name and number, and an employee calls back for confirmation on the day of the reservation, insisting diners arrive promptly since "space is tight." It's not a warm reception: All party members must be present before a table is offered, a cooler-than-thou hostess sniffs, leaving me hunkered against a wall outside. On special events (i.e. New Year's Eve), guests may speak only to a "reservations specialist," who isn't in, forcing my dining companion to call back. The process requires not only a credit card number to hold the spot, but a faxed, written agreement promising that you'll show up, plus a faxed copy of the front and back of a credit card.

A pain? You bet. But on the plus side, at least Sapporo takes reservations, unlike the "we're too busy to care" policy of other hot spots like the Cheesecake Factory and yes, P.F. Chang's. In my mind, there's virtually no restaurant experience special enough to put up with a wait longer than two hours, when we could have simply called ahead. Besides, it's still possible to grab a prime table at Sapporo's as a lunch walk-in.

Another gripe is more serious. Sapporo needs a crash course on cleaning. Gangbusters busy or not, there's no excuse for smudged silverware (at one lunch, a fork is studded with a previous diner's dried-out rice). Glass-topped tables often are smeared with dishcloth slime, glasses are clouded by water spots, and soy sauce carafes come with lips coated in residue. An 11 a.m. visit to the sushi bar finds the counter littered with bits of food debris, though we're the first guests. And where are the chopstick rests? The polished wands roll right off the glass tabletops onto the floor.

That said, I can suffer through the sloppiness for the food. Sapporo is split into three concepts, featuring teppanyaki, sushi and Pacific Rim. Note: All party members had better be in the mood for the same type of food, because with a few exceptions, each concept is offered in a separate area. A limited sushi menu crosses the borders.

Smudged or not, the sushi setting sets an upbeat mood. Grab a blue-suede chair and settle at the undulating slate and stainless-steel bar cradled between two curved walls of lacquered black stone set with waterfalls and fog mist. Gaze at a fish tank, bustling with bright-yellow swimmers; peek through the glass and see another tank, this one bobbing with neon-colored live jellyfish.

Oshiburo (washcloths) are a nice thought, but would be much better offered warm, rather than chilled in plastic wrappers. The idea of complimentary miso soup is wonderful (oh for the days when edamame -- boiled, salted soy beans -- were freebies as well), but this broth needs a lot more body.

Sapporo's sushi is dynamite, though. Even the most basic nigiri is picture perfect, including maguro (tuna) so fresh, meaty and amply cut that it reminds me why, years ago, I first fell in love with the raw fish. In such company, hamachi (yellow tail) is less impressive, more dry than silky, yet it's still a top cut. Tako (octopus), which can get rubbery in a hurry, comes perfectly sliced in thick rounds, piled with cucumber and splashed with tart-sweet vinaigrette for a compelling tako sunomono salad.

Maguro takes a fiery turn with the spicy tuna roll, stuffed with plump chunks of fish blended with kiaware (sprouts), cucumber and sesame seeds. The solid bits of fish are a nice change from the more common minced blend. And the everyday California roll gets spruced up "golden" style, the crab, cucumber and avocado nubbins topped with a cap of salty masago (tiny orange smelt eggs).

But it's the namesake Sapporo roll that really wins my heart. It's edible art, starting with a star-shaped centerpiece of yellow tail and salmon, a lining of real crab, tobiko (roe) and a skewering of crisp, fresh asparagus spear. A wrapping of rice, a final blanket of ivory-colored soy nori sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, and the result is a marvelous mouthful. Sushi chef Young Park makes his mark with this one.

Sapporo's center ring is stocked with high-tech metal and glass tables ringed by comfortable booths. Here's where diners collect for Pacific Rim fare, crafted by chef Pacifico Mata. What Roy Yamaguchi (Roy's) introduced to the Valley in 1998, Mata has brought into the millennium. Seared ahi has become ubiquitous, but it's hard to dismiss the superior fish served here, expertly presented and paired with a slaw of Napa cabbage, bean sprouts, carrot and daikon, plus a gutsy ginger dressing. It could use less garlic crust on the fish; the bitter coat becomes overpowering after a few bites.

Black cod isn't a common fish in town, but the buttery, mild fish could easily become a crowd favorite with more exposure. Mata treats it gently, bathing slabs in velvety, mildly sweet miso-yaki over a bed of scallions, cabbage, bean sprouts, cucumber and carrot. Hamachi carpaccio is another creative plate, the fish whisper-thin and paired with sliced jalapeño in a puddle of musky peanut oil-soy-ginger-truffle sauce.

Double pan-fried noodles aren't the typical Chinese rubber bands, but competently cooked to an almost chewy, slightly crunchy edge. The fat noodles lounge in a soy-based sauce with tender stir-fried beef and vegetables. It's a friendly plate for diners who aren't ready to experiment with more extravagant dishes like hoisin-glazed barbecued quail with yuzu vinaigrette and microgreens.

Tom yum soup, on the other hand, is too gentle, even for placid palates. The whole point of the Thai soup is to startle with furious spice and lemongrass; Sapporo serves up the Campbell's version, a tepid broth stocked with Napa cabbage, chicken, shrimp, mushrooms, cilantro, bean sprouts and carrot.

The final experience of the trinity, teppanyaki, doesn't start well. A 6:30 p.m. our reservation finds us standing in the lobby, waiting for our table to be "prepared." Interesting, since a teppanyaki table needs no preparation -- the setup is simply a centerpiece grill lined with a rim on which to rest plates, a communal spot for up to eight guests.

After our request at 6:45, we're sitting by our lonesome at the grill table, waiting for the remaining six diners to be seated (Hey, if we've been admonished to be on time, what's so special about this other party?). It's almost 7 before everyone's ready, this merry band of strangers who kept us from feeding.

After that, things flow smoothly. Appetizers arrive, bringing the usual suspects with a fine consommé, a house salad with ginger dressing and fried shrimp. Soon, a chef pops up to slice, dice and sizzle our selections.

The show is Benihana but better, clichéd comedy but not Up With People goofy. Knives flash, forks glitter and the chef tosses out our choices of excellent, flash-seared chunks of filet mignon, New York strip, lobster, calamari, chicken, shrimp or scallops. Sides of teppan vegetables and fried rice round out the meal.

Sapporo is yet another cool gathering spot in the burgeoning north Scottsdale area. We've got plenty of those. The difference is that Sapporo cares as much about its food as it does its social scene.

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